Why there's no national park in the Sawtooths — and why that matters
In 1960, Frank Church stood in his Washington, D.C. office, ready to make a pitch.
“I want to talk to you briefly about Idaho outdoors,” said Church, Idaho’s junior senator, a 35-year-old Democrat in his first term.
He was addressing his constituents in a crackly black and white film.
“We have hardly begun to tap Idaho’s potential as a summer playground,” he continued, seated at a table in a dark suit and tie.
Church thought Idaho had a lot of potential, and he wanted to see the state become a tourism destination. He said the path to making that happen was the conservation of Idaho’s “unique attractions.”
Two of these attractions, he said, were featured in a picture over his mantel.
“I’d like to show it to you,” he told viewers.
Church stood up and pointed to a large, framed photo of the Salmon River snaking through the Stanley Basin. The Sawtooth Mountains tower over the river.
“I think there is no scenic grandeur anywhere in the United States to compare with the jagged summits of the Sawtooths,” Church said.
A national park there, he said, “would preserve unspoiled for future generations.”
The Sawtooths were the homelands of a band of Shoshone known as the Sheepeaters, who created society around the mountains and rivers where they hunted and fished seasonally. During the Sheepeater Indian War of 1879 with miners, many were captured forcibly brought to the Fort Hall Reservation.
The area has been managed by the Forest Service since 1905 – first as a forest reserve, then as a “primitive area” in 1937.
By 1960, all other Western states had a national park -- Yellowstone in Wyoming, Glacier in Montana, Zion in Utah.
Various groups of Idahoans had pushed for a national park in central Idaho since the early 1900s, with some attempts making their way to Congress, only to be shut down.
Miners, loggers and ranchers were among the groups opposed to the idea of a park for the Gem State.
Still, Church was ready to be the latest champion of the conservation movement. He ended the video from his office by sitting down again, addressing viewers.
“Remember, Idaho outdoors belongs to you,” he said, pointing to the camera. “It is yours in trust to enjoy and to safeguard for future generations.”
A practical politician
Around this time, the environmental movement was taking off nationwide, and a large swath of the population was on its side.
“In the sixties and seventies, environmental protection, which included setting aside public lands, was very bipartisan,” said Sara Dant, a history professor at Weber State University in Utah who has studied and written about Church. “It wasn't a Democrat issue. It wasn't a Republican issue. It was an American issue.”
Dant said behind Church’s interest in the park idea was the ultimate goal of environmental protection, but he was a practical politician and needed to appeal to people in his increasingly conservative state.
So, in 1960, he wasn’t yet proposing a national park around the Sawtooths; he was only suggesting a study to see if a park would be feasible.
When the federal study came back and said the Sawtooths could either be protected as a national park or another, more modest, option: a national recreation area, he introduced a bill in Congress for each.
“To me, it's super smart politics,” Dant said.
She said Church was giving people a choice, albeit a narrow one. He was asking people how they wanted to protect the Sawtooths — not if.
In 1966, the U.S. Senate Recreation Committee came to Sun Valley Resort to hold a hearing, to figure out what Idahoans wanted Church to do to protect the Sawtooths.
Church wanted a park, but he knew some powerful groups in Idaho would oppose it because of what they would have to give up: hunting, grazing and mining. It would also mean federal acquisition of private ranch land.
”A national recreation area, on the other hand,” he said, “would permit extensive multiple usage.”
Activities like hunting and grazing would be allowed in a national recreation area. It would also still protect against what he called “unsightly development,” referring to trailers and A-frames that were popping up all over the Sawtooth Valley floor.
Large subdivisions were planned, or already growing, near Obsidian and Pettit Lake. “Coney Island” or “tourist trap” businesses would be an inevitable development, according to the Forest Service.
At the Sun Valley hearing, environmentalists testified a park would provide the best protection against things like mining.
Most who spoke favored the recreation area. They included ranchers, county commissioners and mountain guides. The Idaho Legislature endorsed it, too.
Some saw the recreation area as the best way to put an end to the national park campaign. Others thought it was a quicker path to protecting the area.
Church went back to Washington with this in mind.
“Church understood very well that he was representative of the people,” Dant said. "And what Church wants may not necessarily be what Idaho wants.”
So, he pressed ahead, building consensus for a national recreation area with his Republican colleagues in the Idaho delegation, including Sen. Len Jordan and Reps. Orval Hansen and Jim McClure.
Uproar against mining in the White Clouds
A couple of years later, their job got a bit easier.
In 1968, ASARCO Mining Company began exploring the White Cloud Mountains, southeast of Stanley. There were looking for an ore called molybdenum, a metal used as a steel alloy.
Soon after, the company submitted plans with the Forest Service to begin clearing roads on a path to building an open-pit mine at the base of Castle Peak, which soars up nearly 12,000 feet.
Local environmentalists were enraged, even forming new organizations, such as the Greater Sawtooth Preservation Council, in response.
After hearing that outcry, Church and Jordan scrambled to include the White Clouds in their recreation area proposal.
The threat of the mine had also caught the attention of another Idaho politician. Cecil Andrus was running for governor as a Democrat, and he opposed the mine.
“This would have been an open-pit mine in a high altitude situation where it went down into a drainage of our rivers, and we just flat said “no,” Andrus told a writer for Sunset Magazine later in 1973.
His Republican opponent, on the other hand, Governor Don Samuelson, was for it.
The uproar against the mine just kept growing, gaining national attention. There was a New York Times Sunday editorial and an article in Life Magazine.
Many say protecting Castle Peak is what propelled Andrus ahead to win in 1970. He thought so, too, calling the peak the mountain that made a governor.
“That was the first campaign in America that--in a gubernatorial race, at least--that revolved around protecting portions of the world in which we live,” he told Idaho Public Television in 1990.
Andrus went on to serve as Governor of Idaho for 14 years, the only one so far to be elected four times. In between those terms, he was U.S. Secretary of the Interior under President Jimmy Carter.
Environmental groups who built momentum around saving Castle Peak pushed Church once again for a national park. They said the protections in the national recreation area model were not strong enough on their own to stop the threat of mining.
And while Church seemed to consider it once again, the proposal was never realized. But the movement helped the Idaho delegation gain support for the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.
The Recreation Area would stop new mining claims and would give the Forest Service new tools to regulate existing ones, effectively calling off ASARCO’s project.
The act passed Congress and became law in 1972. It was not a national park -- Idaho is still the only Western state without one -- but Church felt it was what he could get done at the time, according to Dant.
“For me, the passage of this bill is especially gratifying for it capped a personal effort of more than 12 years in the Senate,” Church said in and end-of-year address to constituents.
Twelve years after Church resurrected the national park campaign, the recreation area act covered more than 750,000 acres of the Sawtooth, Boulder and White Cloud Mountains, and the valley between.
It would look completely different
Cars whiz by on Highway 75, passing the Bethine and Frank Church Overlook on their way down the mountain pass into the valley.
The overlook sits at 8,700 feet, 30 miles north of Ketchum.
“The best view of the Sawtooths from a paved road,” said Ed Cannady, who worked for the SNRA for decades as a backcountry recreation manager.
He lists the names of mountains across from the overlook, their tops still covered in late-spring snow. Snowyside Peak, Mount Cramer and Decker Peak, which is partially hidden behind clouds.
The expansive Sawtooth Valley is below. The land is wide and open along the highway, before it hits the forested hills, which shoot up into the rocky, harsh range.
According to Cannady, the valley is in good shape, considering there’s a lot of private land there.
He said without the protections in the SNRA, it could be scattered with houses and commercial buildings in front of the mountains, like Sun Valley, Jackson Hole or a number of other mountain valleys in the West.
“You would see a lot more development here,” Cannady said. “It would look really completely different.”
Cannady said a national park would have meant even more environmental protections against development and for wildlife like wolves and salmon. But he said a big part of the reason creating the SNRA was successful politically was that it was not a park.
“I always describe the Sawtooth NRA as being like a national park only here people get to be part of the ecosystem,” he said. “You can still cut timber, graze cows, hunt, fish -- things that are really important to the people of Idaho.”
Still, he doesn’t think something like the SNRA, arrived at in a compromise, could be created today.
He pointed to the Idaho House of Representatives twice shutting down a resolution to honor the 50-year anniversary this past legislative session.
Rep. Megan Blanksma (R-Hammett) said it amounted to a celebration of federal overreach and federal control of “what should be state lands.”
Part of the recreation area had been managed by the Forest Service for about 70 years by the time the SNRA was created.
Blanksma said she would be happy honoring the fishing, hiking and rivers because that’s what make Idaho great. What’s not great, she said, is federal management of those things.
U.S. Congressman Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said this debate goes all the way back to statehood.
“We love the lands; we oftentimes complain about our landowners,” he said.
To him, the Forest Service has done a good job in Idaho. And, despite the changing politics around conservation, Simpson got a broad coalition of groups to support wilderness designations for the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains within the SNRA in 2015.
Simpson said the work done to protect the Sawtooths is worth celebrating.
“Whether it was Frank Church or Jim McClure or Cecil Andrus, any of those people that did great work before us,” he said. “So, you know, we’re standing on the shoulders of a lot of giants.”
He said people come to Idaho, and live here, because of places like the SNRA.
Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen
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